Could biodynamic be the future of Swiss wine?

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Ellen Wallace

Nicolas Joly is a superstar in the increasingly accepted world of biodynamic winemaking, although he would probably cringe at that label. But a presentation Monday night in Valais, at the Tsampéhro cellar in Flanthey, made it was easy to see why he’s not just another farmer touting natural wines. The Frenchman knows how to capture a crowd, even one including some very good Swiss winemakers who arrived as skeptics.

He is rich in experience and convictions. The room was packed, tickets were sold out nearly as soon as word went out that he would be in town, and the waiting list was long.

It didn’t hurt that the invitation included a tasting session after Joly’s presentation, with two wines each from: Joly (these sell in Switzerland for CHF30 for the least expensive and CHF70-80 for the top wine), Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in Fully, many of whose wines are often sold out, pioneer Marion Granges from the Beudon winery in Fully-Saillon and Tsampéhro, whose top-end wines are sold by the case. Our host, Tsampéhro, is beginning to explore biodynamic.

Joly argues strongly – passionately – with arms in constant motion as he leans into the crowd. His point: the best wines are the result of working with nature’s forces; they’re not made by adding and subtracting chemical solutions. He launches provocative remarks, that wines which meet appellation requirements might be – often are – very good, but soulless, without charm. Do you want to work for the greater good of the French administration, he has asked French vignérons, or for the good of the planet? People think that working with the cosmos is weird because they don’t understand it, but how weird is it that we phone someone halfway around the world on a cell phone and recognize the voice while we’re clueless about how this works, he asks? Waves, think of waves, he says – cosmic waves for the one, radio waves for the other. He’s been making these same arguments, drawing the same parallels for years, and the message is starting to make sense to more people.

He mentions the wines of Georgia, which calls itself the birthplace of wine, saying their wines are “incredible, with all these flavours we never imagined” and then we bring in the AOC laws, and he shakes his head – and the further you go with classical methods, the more you have to call in oenologists to fix the wine, to add, to subtract, like calling doctors all the time instead of focusing on maintaining our health.

Coulée de Serrant, Joly’s holy grail wines

Joly is the author of What is Biodynamic Wine, but most importantly, his Coulée de Serrant wines from the Savennières region in the Loire Valley, France, are famously proof that biodynamic and excellent wine can go hand in hand. The family winery produces 50,000 bottles, with just three wines and one grape, Chenin Blanc. Grapes have been grown on the spot for a millennium.

He insists that the eponymous top of the line wine, which has its own AOC, should be carafed well ahead, even 48 hours, and that it will remain good, often gaining in interest and complexity, for several days. We tried an experiment at our house with the 2015 and the 2012, two very different vintages, and he is right. The wine is from Chenin blanc grapes, crisp, powerful, notes of apples and straw at the outset.

Another of his ventures was the creation in 2001 of the group Renaissance des Appellations, which argues for the “full expression of appellations, firstly, and high quality wines secondly”. It has 230 members from 13 countries, including three from Switzerland: Chappaz, Granges and Jean-Denis Perrochat at Domaine de la Maison Carré in Neuchatel,Bio Suisse in 2015.

Too good to be true, or weird, or somewhere between?

He’s been called the godfather of biodynamic (Forbes), and UK wine writer Jamie Goode referred to him some years ago as “probably the leading proponent of biodynamic viticulture”, noting that his seminars for wine producers were regularly “in high demand”. Since then, his renown has grown, as more wine producers give biodynamic winemaking credence after a period where it was widely viewed as wacky, weird, dubious and akin to a religious cult. Improving the soil they understood, but placing mixtures in cow horns and working to a lunar and cosmic calendar didn’t mesh with the science they’d been taught at school.

Goode is  a widely read British wine blogger with a science background. He wrote,

“Very quickly, I realised that Joly is taking an approach to agriculture that is at odds with my training as a scientist. He is using an altogether different way of describing natural processes – a ‘picture’ language that jars alarmingly with the western rationalistic worldview. This is more the language of religion than that of scientifically based viticulture. Yet at the same time I have immense respect for the vision of viticulture he is expounding. It has a life and vitality of its own, which exposes the intellectual and environmental bankruptcy of chemical-dependent conventional viticultural regimes. Above all, he is making profound, interesting wines.”

By 2017 Goode was reporting again on the winery, but in a no-comment kind of way that left it up to the reader to decide if Joly’s ideas were madness or the environmental sanity we need in the 21st century.

Those same questions were on people’s minds before the presentation in Flanthey Monday night. A group of wine producers was scheduled to have a hands-on session with him Tuesday. Denis Mercier in Sierre said as we went in to hear Joly that he was looking to see if he could pull some threads from the discourse, to add to what he knows, and I heard this echoing around me. Mercier and other Swiss wine producers with excellent reputations have numerous questions about the best way forward. Daughter Madeleine, who also attended, has been working with him for five years; the two discuss what grapes to replant, organic versus biodynamic, what consumers will look for, to what extent they can afford to experiment. Natural wines are too unreliable, can cover too many cellar faults, but biodynamic could be promising.

Swiss wineries put such emphasis on clean, flawlessly made wines that any risk to the final product is out. And if a family is to make a decent living, financial risk has to be kept in check.

What we can expect to pay for biodynamic wines

My own questions are: what price will consumers be willing to pay for these wines, since the drive for organic and, to a lesser extent biodynamic, is coming from consumers. And given that the vote isn’t yet in, if biodynamic wines taste different (we need critical mass for this), will a new generation of consumers who are growing up with more organic wines consider them to be the norm? Joly argues that these wines are definitely different and when handled properly the producer will have far more interesting, improved wines.

I asked him later about prices: will biodynamic wines necessarily be more expensive. Yes and no, he says. Wineries need time to make the transition and to understand that small yields will be part of their success. Initially, this means less income, which could lead to higher prices. But over time, as they build reputations for consistent good quality, cost will go down. The experience of wineries that opted for biodynamic early on, in the 20th century, seems to prove his point.

The ground is shifting in Switzerland

Wineries in Switzerland are now at least giving biodynamic the benefit of the doubt. Seeing successful wines, like Joly’s and Chappaz’s, helps hugely. Sales of organic wines by retailers jumped nearly 17% in 2014, compared to a year earlier, reports Agri, a weekly Swiss agricultural magazine, and that was the average. Supermarket growth was even higher, with their company officials cited as saying consumer demand for organic wine will grow.

The amount of biodynamic produce (wine and other farm products) has seen growth, figures from the Swiss Association for Biodynamic Farming show. The association is part of Demeter Switzerland; Demeter International is the world body that sets biodynamic farming standards. In Switzerland, 2017 saw an increase of 4.6% in the number of registered farms (293) and another 20 farms in the process of “reconversion”, since it takes time to make the shift. In total, Switzerland had 4,790 hectares of biodynamic cultivation, an increase of 5.3%.

Consumers play a role

The official numbers for certified organic wineries, including biodynamic, nevertheless remain relatively low: Switzerland lags behind all of its neighbours, with some 5% compared to an average of 9% in France and 11% in Italy in 2015. Growth, comparing figures from different sources, has been 10-15% a year in European countries in the past five years. But the figure for Switzerland is probably higher than official sources show, Agri argues, noting that the Swiss were pioneers in an early environmental approach, integrated production, and its success was such in Valais that the need to move to organic was slower to take hold.

Today, wine producers’ questions swirl and Joly has an attentive audience, with a handful of journalists and sommeliers taking part as well. Some of us are convinced, then I hear mutterings of “no, that’s not entirely right” behind me. We believe, we don’t believe, we shift again as Joly punches his arguments into the air.

The Frenchman tells us that, just as gravity pulls us down, we should consider the sun’s rays, which plants – vines – pull down, and the more we understand this the more we will understand that working with nature is an art. Biodynamic farming, like acupuncture, stimulates the whole system. Shifting to biodynamic is not an intellectual decision – one has to live the experience. “It’s not a recipe; it’s letting the system work.” He mentions the growing number of food allergies and intolerances  and wonders if over-treated produce isn’t the issue.

Someone asks how he works his own vines. Three to four months of fermentation, no temperature control. “I love having grapes very ripe for the harvest” – one mistake we see today is harvesting grapes that are too green. He takes us back to the vineyards, for there will be far less work in the cellar if the work in the vineyard has been to accompany nature, he insists. And just as I’m thinking the missionary spirit is a little too strong he straightens up and says abruptly that yes, biodynamic farming works, that “there is truth in all this, but we need to know when to stop. It’s not sacred, after all.”

The discussions will go on in Switzerland and elsewhere, but nearly 100 years after Rudolf Steiner wrote about biodynamic farming and some 80 years after farmers began to use herbicides, what was once a quirky sideshow in farming looks set to become mainstream, even if it isn’t adopted by everyone. Expect to see more biodynamic Swiss wines.

Additional reading: interview with Marie-Thérèse Chappaz from 2017 in the magazine for the Swiss Abroad, Revue de la Suisse.



About the author

Ellen Wallace, who attended the first Vinea wine fair as a journalist in 1995, is the author of Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines, and a wine blog, Ellen’s Wine World. An international news journalist and editor (including Time Magazine, Business Week) she published a Swiss news site until 2016; she has been writing regularly about wine since 1984.